And the Lost Silver

by Frances X. Scully

  To this day, no one knows where the the lost silver lode is in Sweden Township, Potter County, five miles from the town of Coudersport. Known to the greatest warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy for over two hundred years, the great lode has never been found by white men, and though the red men have often brought silver ore from the area, they never have revealed the location to their fair skinned neighbors.

   Nor is this all a myth of an imaginative race of people, colored by two centuries of telling and retelling. No less a person than the late Arch Akeley, one of the area’s greatest historians and former superintendent of Potter County schools claims to have found two areas in the Kettle Creek section, where the copper skinned braves smelted the ore. Frequent mention of the precious metal is made in Victor Beebe’s History of Potter County, considered a classic among the people of Pennsylvania’s Northern tier of counties.

  The mine has never been found, but in searching for it, one of the most amazing discoveries in the history of Pennsylvania was made–one that brought recognition and fame to Potter County for seven decades, plus perhaps a million or more visitors.

Here is the story.

   For over half a century, the exasperated woodsmen of Potter County had watched as Red Men entered the woods south of Coudersport, to be gone for a day or two and then emerge with a quantity of pure silver ore. While a fortune was already being made in lumber and the manufacture of wood products, the thought that Coudersport might be another Virginia City, was just too much for the curious residents of Pennsylvania’s Wildcat Region. But searches always ended in baffling failure, no matter how intense the quest might be. It became a standard topic of conversation whenever two or more of the hard-bitten lumberjacks got together.

  In the summer of 1894, an Indian from the nearby Cattauragus Reservation across the state line came to Coudersport. As the natives eyed the shabbily dressed Indian suspiciously, he headed in the direction of the little town of Sweden Valley, entering the dense forests about a half mile from present Route Six. Within a few hours the Red Man emerged from the woods near the base of Ice Mountain and made his way into the village where he stopped at a general store, little suspecting that he had been followed—or so the white men thought. Taking a red bandanna handkerchief from his pocket, the Seneca untied the corners revealed several pieces of fine silver ore, perhaps four or five pounds. Displaying his find to the flabbergasted whites who crowded around like flies at a picnic, the stoic warrior answered all questions with a shake of his head. Then he picked up his prize and left the store.

  The next day, after an evening bout with the "Rot Gut" whiskey of the day, the brave returned to Ice Mountain, and proceeded to lose the human bloodhounds on his trail within a very few moments. Again he emerged from the woods with more silver, and again he displayed nothing but silence, other than a quick peek at his silver, for one or two of the lucky ones who might have plied him a bit—with a little hair of the dog that had bitten him.

   Well that did it. The man who owned Ice Mountain at the time had an employee who claimed to know a thing or two about mining, or his name wasn’t Billy O’Neil. So, carrying his divining rod that he had often used in locating water wells, O’Neil entered the woods near the identical spot that the passive Redskin had entered. Half way up the mountain, the legend has it, that the forked stick, lurched violently toward the ground. O’Neil shouted to his compatriot, "We’ve found it, it’s right here. Just start digging."

  Quickly tearing up the moss, which was about five inches thick, the two searchers were astonished to find a thin sheet of ice, despite the fact that the temperature was nearly ninety. Continuing to dig for the next two or three days, the men uncovered a shaft about twenty five feet in depth and perhaps ten to twelve feet across. In the course of the digging the men uncovered two or three large crevices or caverns, and large quantities of ice. Bits of pottery and other artifacts were found, along with human bones, a petrified fish, and certain objects which resembled the petrified remains of a human body—but no silver.

   Giving up in disgust, the men left the scene of the shaft and returned to the village of Coudersport, where they were subjected to the usual rounds of jibes and guffaws. O’Neil took the kidding in stride, and still believed that somewhere on the mountain, there was a vein of pure silver, and so one day he returned to the shaft. The volatile Irishman could hardly believe his eyes. The shaft was coated with ice, with some of the formations being as thick as a man’s body, and twelve to fifteen feet long. A chilling draft came from the mouth of the shaft, and once or twice O’Neil thought he could hear a soft chugging from the center of the mountain. Backing away from the hole like he had seen his Maker, the simple man turned and headed back to the county seat to report the miracle he had witnessed.

   Throughout the remainder of the summer, hundreds in the area visited the scene of the "Ice Mine" as they called it, and the silver was forgotten. But the natives were in for another shocker before real ice and snow came. O’Neil visited the shaft late in November, and despite the fact that it was a chilly day, the ice formations were completely melted, and instead, a soft warm breeze seemed to be coming from the cavern. This was too much for the Irishman, who took off for the nearest tavern. In the summer, when visitors came back to the shaft, they again formed ice formations—and so it remains to this day: ice in the summer, and none in the winter. The phenomenon uncovered by the silver prospector has affected the economy of Potter County, perhaps more than the discovery of the silver might have done, as thousands visit the site of the famous "Ice Mine" every year and hear the wondrous tale of how during summer warm air forces out cold air from the honeycombed mountain, causing the condensed moisture to freeze, and how the reverse process is repeated in the winter, forcing out the warm air of the summer, which melts the ice. So you have a refrigerator and don’t need ice.

   What about the silver and the artifacts? The lost silver mine is often discussed by the thousands of deer hunters who visit this paradise only six hours from the great cities of the east. Natives who have heard the tale many times from their grandfathers and grandmothers often mention the lost mine, and where it might be. Meanwhile, across the border, holding a 99 year lease on the city of Salamanca, which soon expires, the members of the Seneca Nation chuckle whenever the subject of the ice mountain silver is mentioned. They’re not talkin’.


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